What’s the difference between a good smell and a bad smell? More than any other of the five senses, that’s a very personal question. Though there’s a range of smells we generally consider pleasant or unpleasant as a population, the intensity and spectrum varies heavily. One person’s heavenly scented candle might trigger osmophobia (sensitivity or aversion to smells) in another!
For me, this hits close to home when I’m recommending scented candles to my mom. I prefer a stronger scent that can fill the room for hours, so I know I’m getting my money’s worth out of that candle! My mom prefers a more moderate level of scent. (Interestingly, this parallels with our senses of taste: I prefer spicier foods and she prefers milder ones.) For people like my mom, strongly scented candles can lead to nausea or even headaches.
Smell sensitivity can be biological. Some people can’t stand the smell of generally pleasant flowery perfume, and it might just be related to the anatomy of their nose. Other times it can be psychological: if a loved one wears a certain fragrance, you may be more likely to associate that smell with positive feelings. It’s clear in the difference between my mom and I, who are closely related, that it certainly is a lot more complicated than simple genetics!
Additionally, it might be the case that the candles that cause headaches for my mom might not be good for me to light, either. A 2017 medical study exposing mice to the effects of paraffin candles suggested that some candles may cause “indoor air pollution” that negatively affects people with asthma and young children with developing lungs. So maybe cleaner candles with more natural scents are better for everyone, not only the most sensitive among us.
Over the years, I’ve learned a few key factors in recommending candles to my mom (and other osmophobic people) that won’t give them headaches. Here are some of the tips I’ve learned, along with a few candle recommendations that won’t make your head hurt:
1. Go organic
Did you know that as recently as 16 years ago, candle wicks sometimes had lead in them? (A great argument for tossing your vintage candles!) Since 2003, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has had that practice banned, but you can go even cleaner with your candles by choosing options that use all-organic components for their votive, wax, wick, and scent.
Choose candles that advertise their organic ingredients—otherwise, you can assume they’re made of something else, along with unbleached cotton wicks. Look for candles that use essential-oil scents, which are cleared as safe for ingestion. Here are a few:
|Natura Vegan Belgium Lavender Candle
This 100% biodegradable soy wax candle is certified paraben and phthalate free. Better yet, its scent comes entirely from lavender essential oil, not a blend or mix. Dye free, with an unbleached cotton wick, it’s not only one of the most natural candles we tried, but one of the best smelling: a sweet herbal lavender aroma with no smoky finish.
|Vatima Explore Cinnamon and Clove Candle
This looks like a high-end hotel candle, but costs less than $20! It’s an invigorating blend of orange and spices, and all the fragrance comes from organic sources. The candle’s natural soy wax is also vegan-friendly, sustainably sourced, and 100% organic. We love it for its simple, chic appearance as much as its all-natural ingredients!
|Aromas Mad Calm Candle
This candle isn’t only organic soy, it’s also small batch and sustainable. Hand-poured in Los Angeles, this clean-burning candle smells like a floral, herbal blend of plumeria, sage & pomegranate. These delicate essential oils are gentle and natural, but still strong enough to eliminate less pleasant odors in your home.
2. Choose alternative waxes
There’s only one study, a 2009 report from South Carolina State University, that suspects that paraffin wax probably isn’t very good for us to inhale, and the jury’s still out on the results. But even if the study doesn’t hold water, we can agree that paraffin wax, which is a petroleum byproduct of crude oil production, isn’t very environmentally sustainable.
So what is? For the ultimate in eco-friendliness and clean-burning candles, look for candles made from natural alternatives and particularly from vegetable wax (like soy, beeswax, coconut, or non-GMO corn). Soy wax in particular has taken off, but it’s important to check the percentage of soy wax in the candle—to make sure it’s not a 50-50 soy/paraffin blend. Here are some alternative wax candles that fit the bill:
|K.Hall Designs Milk Scented Vegetable Wax Candle
I found this one at Barnes & Noble, making it accessible and affordable! Its soy and vegetable wax blend burns cleaner than paraffin, and its creamy coconut and vanilla scent feels cozy and warm. This soothing scent is rich but not overpowering, more subtle than your usual scented candle.
|Boy Smells Stalker Candle
Don’t let this candle’s name fool you: it actually refers to the farmer’s market collection of stalked veggies that give it its botanical, earthy scent. I’ve been watching this youthful new candle brand as it quickly became a department store staple, and its beeswax and coconut wax blend makes it as clean-burning as it is trendy.
|Wild Beautiful Free Citrus and Floral Candle
This Amazon bestseller combines organic coconut wax and 100 percent pure aromatherapy-grade essential oils for a candle that’s good for you and the environment—10% of every sale of these candles goes toward a lion, gorilla, or elephant sanctuary. I like Hope Lion, which blends citrus and floral notes for a scent that is exotic and sweet.
3. Read the reviews
You can research organic and alternative candles all day, but when in doubt, it’s helpful to let your fellow candle lovers give you a hand. Since sense of smell is something so personal and variable, it’s great to get feedback from a range of other customers before you buy. If the general consensus is that a candle is too smelly or hardly has a scent, that tells you something valuable before you buy, especially if you’re shopping for candles online.
Now, I’m taking my own advice and opening up this question to the comments! What are some of your favorite nontoxic candles that you’d recommend for sensitive noses?